I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS
by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Gary Blythe - Walker Books, 2011
ages 6 years to grown-up / chapter books, heartwarmers, imagination
Michael Morpurgo often chooses war as a theme around which to wrap a story that isn’t really about war at all.
In I Believe in Unicorns there is a war and it carries all the usual elements—fear, displacement, destruction, change, courage.
And the war is pivotal to the story.
But the story itself is about belief, acceptance, virtue, love and hope. It's told in the first person by Tomas who is remembering the time war came to his town.
One of the elements that I love in Michael Morpugo’s writing style is that he is not afraid to take his time to get to the story.
In this case there’s a librarian who tells a group of children a story about Noah’s Ark—and Morpurgo recounts the story over a number of pages.
A less skilled writer might skim over the story since it is so well known, but Morpurgo takes it slowly and as a result draws us into the world and mind of Tomas and settles us into his time.
I love the little reminders about the importance of storytelling in growing a community—and hints about how to tell a good story. Tomas says of the librarian telling the Noah’s Ark story:
“It was the way she told [the stories] I think, as if each of us was the only one she was talking to, and as if each story must be real and true, however unlikely, however fantastical. You could tell she believed absolutely in her stories as she told them.”
This book is full of the stuff of life—the magic of a story being read aloud to one’s family, the dread of a parent’s promise that fails, a little boy who is too frightened to cry.
It’s a fragile story that ends with resilience and there’s a satisfying ending that isn’t whitewashed, but is also not glaringly harsh. Reading I Believe in Unicorns will help to cement concepts like these:
the importance of ideas—there’s a wonderful and seamless treatise on storytelling in the middle of the book including gems like “…stories and poems help you to think and to dream. Books make you want to ask questions.”
finding courage when it’s needed—from everyday situations such as being brave enough to share a story to extreme circumstances such as saving books from a bombed and burning library.
community—after the horror of the first bombing raid Tomas tells us ‘everyone was found a home somewhere’.
resilience—in just a few short paragraphs, the war ends and the previously destroyed library is rebuilt, but there’s no pretence that it was an easy path.
overcoming fear to find joy—when Tomas is brave enough to take a turn reading aloud he says that:
"it was as if I was up in the mountains alone and singing a song at the top of my voice, for the sheer joy of the sound of it."
When I read Michael Morpurgo stories aloud I am just as enthralled and invested as the listeners. I’ve tried not to give away too much of the story so that you can have it unfold for you too. The story here is mesmerising and well worth the hour or so it takes to read aloud ... a long car trip or a camping trip are perfect times.
And one final note—this story is included in the anthology Singing for Mrs Pettigrew (which I love), but the version I’ve recommended here is illustrated so beautifully by Gary Blythe that I think it’s worth owning separately.